In the exhibition "Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection" the works of prominent artists associated with the venerable Leipzig Art Academy see the light. The featured artists are Neo Rauch, Tilo Baumgärtel, Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer. What makes this exhibit of paintings so unusual is that the few drawings completely blow away the rather conservative works on canvas in the collection.
Founded in 1764, and one of the oldest art schools in Germany, the Leipzig Academy is highly regarded for its tradition of figure painting which was bound to state-mandated Socialist realism in the East German era. The school's required focus on figure painting shut out experimentation with subject matter or form, yet somehow left technique free to develop. Its foundation course focuses for two years primarily on portrait and nude studies. The academy has produced some of East Germany's most highly regarded figure painters.
Contemporary art in Germany has a conceptual fissure forming with the reunification of the country after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Six of the artists included in "Life After Death" were students at the academy in the decade after the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall; the seventh, Neo Rauch, studied at the school in the 1980s and taught there in the 1990s, working closely with these students. Following graduation from the school, the younger artists formed Galerie LIGA (the League Gallery) in Leipzig.
Reaching across history to a previous era, Tilo Baumgärtel executes a drawing of epic proportions. "Die Pause" (The Pause) was created in 2004. Using charcoal as a vehicle, the artist shares a rich compositional tradition drawn from expressionist artists like Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and the noted Berlin satirist and Dadaist George Grosz. The dystopian worldview of this drawing is rooted in the urban narrative depictions that were a hallmark of the Weimar era in German cultural history.
Baumgärtel gives us a global twist with the use of Asian figures and the visual quotation of Japanese woodblock prints. The figure in the foreground is drawing on a paper with the title phrase by using a sumi brush. The cityscape is a universal depiction of contemporary Germany struggling with issues of race and gender identity.
The other drawings in the exhibition are by Matthias Weischer. Hung salon style, these sketches from the artist provides the viewer with a unique avenue into the compositional process of the workings of his interior mind. Using graphite on paper with occasional use of color, Weischer charms the viewer with lyrical studies for past and future projects. Each has a narrative with the collected whole comprising a chorus of voices demanding attention.
The small works are where these paintings really shine. Tim Eitel's "Untitled" (Steps), "Untitled" (Group), "Untitled" (Reference) and "Untitled" (Bomber jacket) were all executed in 2003-06. Their small size makes for a more intimate viewing experience. The subject matter is banal, scenes from everyday life. What makes these works so compelling is in the deft artistry of how the mundane becomes aesthetically enticing by the simplicity of the design.
The large-scale paintings predictably cry out for attention. The way to look at them is to think of them as history paintings. In the hierarchy of genres first codified by Jacques-Louis David for the French Academy, history painting was held in the highest esteem as it seeks to educate and elevate the viewer. The scale of the works adds to this sense by making the viewer want to step into the paintings.
Neo Rauch, the oldest artist represented in the exhibition, peppers his compositions with standard political polemics, which are the hallmark of the German intelligentsia. The fairly recent work is done in his signature cartoon-like style depicting rallies and other communal activities. The artist dips into the well of history with compositional quotations from Manet and Picasso.
When all is said and done, the contemporary paintings from Leipzig share an affinity with the Frye collection. Most of the paintings in the museum were created in an academy setting and reflect the standard rules and formula of those educational institutions. Sitting in one of the signature chairs at the Frye after viewing the exhibition, my feet ached as much as my eye. Gazing over the permanent collection, I realized for all the hype and hip spin of this show, contemporary painting in Leipzig is still an academic exercise.
Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection runs from Feb. 17, through June 3, at the Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave. Admission to the Frye is always free.
Capitol Hill resident Steven Vroom writes about visual arts each month. He is the host of Art Radio Seattle, a weekly visual art news pod cast at www.vroom journal.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.